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This art world 'blind date' is teaming up Melbourne's favourite creatives

Duality Melbourne Writers Festival 2019
Photograph: Shannyn Higgins

Inspiration for artists can come from just about any source, but is often at its richest when it comes from the words or provocation of a writer. That's the principle behind Duality, an experiment and exhibition that's part of Melbourne Writers' Festival, in which writers like Courtney Barnett, Judith Lucy, Jenny Valentish and Dan Kelly are being matched up with artists for an unusual set of collaborations.

Duality is the brainchild of photographer Shannyn Higgins, so we asked her a few questions about the project.

Duality is described as an art world "blind date". What's meant by that? How does it work?

Twenty-five writers are asked to contribute a sentence, a lyric or a paragraph from their notebooks. Their words are typed out and sealed in a wax seal envelope removing any trace of context, identity or origin and handed to an artist along with a blank sheet of paper, leaving the artist to interpret and respond blindly. 

Courtney Barnett. Photograph: Shannyn Higgins.

Where did this idea come from?

The language we use is subjective and I wanted to explore the idea of taking a narrative out of context to see how an artist would respond to words, without knowing where they originated. To truly explore this concept, I decided to invite a diverse selection of 50 creatives into the experiment. This list of creatives factored in emerging and established as well as diversity in age, cultural, political, gender and artist practice.

While the pairings are kept secret until opening night, I photographed and film all 50 writers and artists in their creative spaces. These stories which are shared on the Duality website and socials build a sense of community between these strangers in the lead up to the big reveal. What started out as a simple idea as an emerging photographer in Vancouver in 2014, has now turned into three international exhibitions and a partnership in 2019 with the Melbourne Writers Festival and Rialto Towers.

How have you matched up the artists with the writers? Are you playing matchmaker, or is it random?

The pairing is completely random. I have never wanted to preconceive subject matter that the artist might prefer to work through or match words with a specific style or aesthetic. Instead, I left the pairings to chance by putting the writer's names in one hat, artists in another and created the pairing through a lucky dip.

You've ran the project three times before. What are some of the most surprising things to come out of it?

It’s incredibly rewarding when writers tell you that they found snippets from their notebooks that they had long forgotten. Or when artists talk about how refreshing it is to respond to words that are coming from an outside source as it allows them to break from their normal approach and routines and this results in a truly unique and experimental artwork.

There is always so much beautiful synergy between the words from the writer and the artists' interpretations.

Judith Lucy. Photograph: Shannyn Higgins.

Have you ever had an artist guess who they've been matched up with? 

Never, actually. I make sure that the words can’t be googled and they have no previous footprint online or in print. But even when chatting about it with the artists, I’ve never had someone guess correctly.

Have you ever had an artist totally shocked about whose work they've been responding to? 

Absolutely. Duality is so diverse from age (this year ranging from 20 to 65) culturally, politically and of course, the disciples range from musicians, authors, journalists, comedians, fine artist, illustrators, street artists to cartoonists. The artists really do propel the words in a new direction and this tangible result provides such a wonderful shock for the writers and such a wonderful connection for the artists to then see the writers' words in a new way. Opening night has such a wonderful buzz when the pairings are finally revealed and artists and writers get to meet and discuss their interpretations.

The Duality exhibition is at KSR Art Bar August 31 to September 8.

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